Industrial campaign needed to really change workplace rules

A Unions NSW-called protest in the early days of Change the Rules campaign.

The results of the federal election have shown the limitations of the Australian Council of Trade Union-led Change the Rules campaign.

Green Left Weekly has previously reported that some activists withdrew from the campaign just before pre-poll voting commenced after the ACTU decided to hand out a how-to-vote card explicitly calling for first preference for Labor rather than urging voters to “Put the Liberals last”.

In Victoria it seems the ACTU stuck with Labor 1, Greens 2. However, it was further criticised closer to polling day when it was revealed Labor how-to-votes in the Queensland seat of Capricornia preferenced Katter’s Australian Party and the Democratic Labour Party ahead of the Greens.

It was clear the ACTU’s message was inconsistent and opportunist, with how-to-vote cards in one state reading “The only two parties committed to these issues are the Australian Labor Party and The Greens”, while in another state it said “The only two parties committed to these issues are the Australian Labour Party and Katter’s Australian Party”.

When tagged in a photo of the Capricornia ACTU how-to-vote card on Twitter, the response from ACTU Secretary Sally McManus was “Don’t be ridiculous. You try and pick the worse out of that lot.”

In fact, the trade union movement has justified its preferences and explicit call to vote 1 Labor from the start. Justifications have included that it was only a “sample” how-to-vote card; only Labor has a chance of winning [X] marginal seat; and workers need a clear direction on which party to vote for.

On that last point, if workers are looking to vote for parties based on their pro-worker industrial relations policies then telling workers to vote 1 Labor is dishonest and blatantly false, given Labor’s history of sell-outs and betrayals.

So, how does Change the Rules stack up in comparison with the “Your Rights at Work” campaign a decade ago?

The most obvious difference is that Your Rights at Work achieved its goal of toppling an incumbent Coalition government, with Labor’s election win in 2007.

Activists involved in both campaigns report the Your Rights at Work campaign was more widespread, more grassroots and far more democratic than the Change the Rules campaign.

Change the Rules has been stage managed from the start. There were no mass member or delegates’ meetings where there was open discussion about the tactics and demands of the campaign. Unlike Your Rights at Work, where there were campaign groups right across the country, Change the Rules has largely had a marginal seat focus. As a consequence, it failed to mobilise or inspire people on the level the Your Rights at Work campaign achieved.

The great downfall of the Your Rights at Work campaign was that after the Kevin Rudd government was elected in 2007, the entire campaign was dismantled, contact lists were destroyed and organising groups were demobilised. As a result, it took five years for Labor to defund the Australian Building and Construction Commission and it never repealed the legislation. Instead of Work Choices, the Rudd Government delivered Work Choices Lite via Fair Work.

The ACTU leadership declared from the beginning that it had learnt from the 2007 campaign and this campaign, even if Labor was elected, would be ongoing. Now the campaign has not achieved the result it intended, it remains to be seen if the campaign will continue under a Coalition government or be put on ice until the next election.

What is clear from both campaigns is that sacrificing industrial campaigning for electoral lobbying tactics has failed unions and their members in a big way, twice. Workers are now staring down the barrel of another three years of a Coalition government, with significant attacks on unions and workers expected.

The Transport Workers Union has foreshadowed significant national strike action across airports and the road transport industry. This is the kind of industrial campaign we need.

[Sarah Hathway is a member of Socialist Alliance and a union organiser in Victoria.]